Photo by Miles Twist
"So you dance salsa", they say in reply to my disclosure that I travel to Buenos Aires to dance.
It was back in 2007 that I packed a rucksack, clutched my passport and credit card, rehearsed my three words of Spanish, and embarked for Buenos Aires on a late lifetimes journey of tango - Argentine tango.
For me, stepping out of a barrister's suit (and wig) into dusty South American streets by day, and packed milongas by night, was both a challenge and a reward. Since university, this was the first time that I had attempted to express myself outside the professional frame, and I slipped quietly and unnoticed into a new life where unless you were a tanguero, reputation and status were nothing.
This was the start of a life about tango. To understand, I must tell you that Argentine tango is not about dancing. Tango is not just a dance. It is something so much more. Having attempted a pastiche of ballroom tango in my twenties, I went on to compete in ballroom dancing little realising that just beyond my gaze was a dance culture that would eclipse them all.
At a technical level, Argentine tango involves unchoreographed movement within an embrace, according to fluid codigos, danced to tango music. But that is like saying that Mozart is formed by notes on a page played by musicians. One needs to step, and sink deeper into Argentine tango as an experience to understand it. It can be a moment of anticipation, frustration, fear, challenge, joy, delight, loss. It can be a bitch and a gift. Most tango dancers make themselves slaves to their master, tango. It is both something that one does because one has to, and something that is done to you because you cannot resist.
"Tango is about answering a subtle question", says Oscar Casas, my first Argentine tango master. But he does not disclose the question. Is he enigmatic, or simply honest? Is the reality of tango - an unanswered question?
Some say that tango is to do with the connection that develops, or envelopes through the tango embrace. It can be one of the most powerful connections that exist between two strangers. It may be intimate, or fun; it may be reassuring or testing. It too is an enigma, where words fall short of dance.
Others contend that Argentine tango is all to do with the music - 'traditional' tango music. Michael Lavocah in 'The Guide to Tango Dance Music' takes the reader on a formidable journey through Golden Age tango. The structure of tunes was critical to how tango was danced - or 'pivotal'. The formation of tandas (a group of three or four tunes danced as an uninterrupted series) dictates the experience of tango too. There are those, who decline to dance Argentine tango to non-tango music, that contend that the formation of the tango beat and structure of the tango phrase is utterly essential to the experience.
"Tango is about presence", "tango is a feeling that is danced." Argentine tango is certainly something that needs to be experienced before it can be understood, and frequently the experience - for those not brought up in the barios of Buenos Aires - takes time, effort, exasperation and patience.
"There is no such thing as an ocho", says Oscar. Maybe this is the closest one can get to the secret of tango. Argentine tango is not to do with 'steps', but with feet on the floor. It is not to do with a 'dance hold' but with an embrace. It is not concerned with 'the occasion', but with the moment. It is that moment, elusive, tantalising, washed away in a song that defines our search.